Winning not required
We’re idling along on a glassy sea. Somewhere ahead of us water meets sky, but a thin veil of fog renders the horizon indiscernible at times. Behind us, the town of Valdez has revved into the full swing of its 55th annual silver salmon derby.
I’m with my brother Chris aboard the Cape Corona, a vessel of his own handiwork, thanks to the events of 2020. While many of us flocked to the stores to garner toilet paper, Chris procured gallons of fiberglass resin and rolls of the various fabric that comprise the laminate. With months of downtime on his hands, he gutted a 22-foot hull to its bare bones and built what he hopes is the ultimate saltwater fishing machine.
With us today is 26-year-old Sarah Minturn, whose dexterity at untangling lines and agility on deck are at once enviable, if not a grim reminder that Chris and I have edged past our mid-60s.
Fifty feet down, and hanging on thick strands of copper wire, heavy lead cannonballs have been rigged to trail dollar-bill-size flashers and releases that pinch the lines that run to our fishing rods. Besides holding our hooks, which have been baited with herring, at the prescribed depth, the devices release when a fish hits and the fight with a scrappy silver ensues. The lull of the small outboard and the eerie harmonics of the copper wires as they cut through the water nearly put me to sleep.
But not for long.
“There’s one!” Chris shouts from inside of the cabin.
The rod on the starboard side gives a few dramatic jerks before the device trips and sets it free. Sarah grabs the rod out of its holder and plays the fish while I frantically crank up the cannonballs to avoid tangles. Given the antics of ocean-fresh silvers, things often get a little crazy on deck between the hookup and when the fish is netted and flopping on deck. It gets even crazier an hour later, with a simultaneous hookup on both rods. After some rod swapping and wild dancing around on deck, we manage to land both chrome-bright fish.
We’re not alone out here. A dozen other boats troll in an oval-shaped pattern along the rocky shoreline, and every few minutes a net comes up with another plump silver.
Back in town, a large leaderboard displays the names of anglers and the weights of their catches. The derby has been running for a couple of weeks already, and fish in the 12-pound range appear to be leading, but that could all change in a minute.
With a grand prize of $10,000 and payouts of $3,000 and $1,500 for second and third place winners, the event has long evolved to embody more than filling freezers with salmon fillets. Daily prizes this year include rain jackets, T-shirts, and gift certificates at Easy Freeze, a local shop that freezes and packages your catch.
Competition is stiff, and with hundreds of contestants it’s hard to tell who has a winning fish without perusing the board, which is constantly updated throughout the derby.
Out on the water, though, it’s easy to tell when someone has landed a contender. Whooping and hollering have always been synonymous with landing a good fish or two. But prolonged cheering—and when everyone on a boat suddenly pulls in their lines and makes a run back to town—smacks of a winning fish.
The impetus for running to the docks before limiting out is that with each minute a fish is out of water it is losing weight; so contestants make haste to have their fish officially weighed in town—and for good reason, as a fraction of an ounce can cost thousands of dollars. Last year’s overall winner tipped the scales at 14.8 pounds and was caught by Marco Harvan of Tok. Second place went to Deanna Cox of Valdez with a silver weighing in at 14.42 pounds, with the weight of the third-place fish, caught by George Levasseur of Valdez, coming in at 14.28 pounds.
In the afternoon, we’re trolling near Jack Bay. Chris switches up to a fluorescent orange cannonball in the theory that we are going to try fishing even deeper, and that brighter is better for attracting silvers. We have been trolling for maybe a half hour when, suddenly, the port-side line trips. Chris scrambles to grab the rod from the holder. But the line suddenly goes limp. At the same time, the spool that holds the cannonball and copper wire spins so fast that the hand crank is a blur. I am afraid to go near it.
“Shark!” yells Chris. “He’s hit the cannonball.”
Sure enough, the fish makes a few more emphatic runs, takes the copper wire to the end of the spool and it disappears with a resounding snap. Though it takes us a half hour to repair the whole setup, we agree that we’re having a fun day at sea. None of the dozen fish filling our cooler come close to winning the derby, but we’ll return home with plenty of fillets and a story about the big one that got away.